For this installment of the SSAR leadership profiles, Student Participation Committee member John Bellah interviewed Dr. Richard Durtsche, the current Symposium Coordinator.
The Symposium Coordinator’s primary function is to solicit, receive, and review proposals for symposia at the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) and independent SSAR meetings.
Activities throughout the year, including at the annual meeting
This process begins with a call for symposium proposals, which is advertised on the SSAR website, the SSAR newsletter, and in membership emails. Once symposium proposals are received they are reviewed for certain criteria, similar to the process for publishing a manuscript. These criteria are 1) what is the relevance of the symposium for SSAR, 2) which topics will the speakers focus on, 3) do the topics represent active science of good quality, and 4) would this symposium be of general interest and attract a broad audience. The term active science generally means any area of science that would attract a sizable audience. The Symposium Coordinator must identify potential reviewers (not on the list of proposed speakers) with the expertise necessary to determine whether the proposed symposium meets all of the criteria listed above. Once the reviews are finished, the Symposium Coordinator summarizes them in a report, along with a recommendation, which gets sent to the SSAR Board of Directors for a final vote on which symposia to sponsor. The approved symposium proposals then get sent to the JMIH Meeting Management and Planning Committee (MMPC), who begin working out the logistics of holding the symposia. Proposals are submitted and approved one year in advance of next years’ JMIH meeting. For example, the symposia for the 2020 JMIH in Norfolk, VA are already accepted and being organized.
JMIH is hosted by a total of four societies: SSAR, Herpetologist’s League (HL), American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH), and the American Elasmobranch Society (AES). Each society funds two symposia; however, it is not uncommon for two or three societies to co-fund symposia that are of interest to the groups. Every year SSAR has a budget of $4,000 for symposia ($2,000 per symposium), which includes monies for things such as support of students, post-docs, and international researchers.
The majority of work for this position normally takes place from the time SSAR begins accepting symposium proposals to the final decision of which symposia to sponsor, which is typically several months. After proposals are accepted, the next phase of the process begins, which is handled by the JMIH MMPC. That means that the Symposium Coordinator typically spends their summers identifying appropriate reviewers and requesting their services, followed by making the official recommendation to guide the SSAR Board’s decision. Anything involving coordinating and setting up at JMIH is handled by the MMPC. However, while the symposia are in session often times Dr. Durtsche or a SSAR officer will get photos of the speakers for Herp Review.
An interesting result of these symposia has been several book publications. For example, some volumes of Herpetological Conservation resulted from symposia, including one titled Urban Herpetology (2008).
Interactions with other SSAR committees and leaders
The Symposium Coordinator primarily coordinates with researchers and subject matter experts during the review process of the proposal until all reviews have been received. They also interact with the SSAR Board of Directors for final symposium approval.
Path to becoming the Symposium Coordinator
Dr. Durtsche was asked to take over the Symposium Coordinator position in 2003. Since then he had done this role by himself, but Dr. Lee Fitzgerald recently joined as co-Coordinator. Because this is not a committee in the traditional sense, Dr. Durtsche points out that a great way to transition to this role would be to attend the SSAR Board Meeting at JMIH and find out which committees are looking for help. Someone with multiple years of experience would be ideal for this position, as the Coordinator needs to be aware of who to contact to review these proposals, which sometimes takes quite a bit of time. This experience can be gained by joining other committees, which will expose you to researchers and subject matter experts from a wide variety of fields. Knowing who is considered a subject matter expert in a particular field will go a long way in making the review process flow as smoothly as possible.
Future of the committee
One interesting result of making symposia as engaging as possible is the creation of JMIH workshops. The concept for JMIH workshops originated in 2015 when a symposium proposal was received that was more workshop-oriented. This is when Dr. Durtsche proposed the workshop concept to the JMIH Meeting Management and Planning Committee, which was implemented at the 2016 JMIH. The goals of these workshops vary by category, but the overall goal is to engage JMIH attendees in a more active and direct way than a traditional symposium. For example, the 2019 JMIH featured the “Workshop on Comparative Phylogenetic Relationships in R,” which was a programming-themed workshop, and was sold out. Due to the success of these workshops there is a strong probability that workshops will continue to have a strong presence at JMIH in future years.
Because SSAR wants to select the best and most engaging symposia from each year’s potential pool, the Symposium Coordinator, in conjunction with the SSAR Board of Directors, accepts proposals that address current topics likely to interest a broad swath of JMIH attendees. For example, the SSAR-sponsored symposia for the 2020 JMIH in Norfolk, VA will pertain to education and diversity. The education-themed symposium ‘Exemplary Practices in Herpetological Education” will host speakers who have all won the Meritorious Teaching Award. The goal of this symposium is to help create an SSAR-endorsed web-based module for creating herpetology courses for college professors. The second symposium, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Herpetology and Ichthyology” will explore current practices aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups in herpetology.
SSAR is currently accepting symposia proposals for the SSAR stand-alone meeting to be held in Ann Arbor, MI in 2021 (more information here) . That meeting will also include symposia sponsored by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), who are also receiving proposals at this time. For more information contact the PARC Executive Committee (http://email@example.com).
Students and postdocs are especially encouraged to submit symposium proposals as a way to get more actively involved in SSAR/JMIH. Crafting a symposium proposal offers a way to explore your scientific interests in a collaborative setting. By identifying and inviting speakers to your symposium, you get to interact with experts in your field (including budding experts, just like you!), which could lead to collaborations later in your career. By identifying the need for a particular symposium topic, you directly contribute to the advancement of herpetology. Over the course of preparing a proposal and planning a symposium, you will interact directly with SSAR leaders to make the symposium happen, which lets you glimpse some of the nuts and bolts of putting on a great conference. Finally, because symposia sometimes lead to book publications, you might have the opportunity to make the insights generated by your symposium accessible to people who couldn’t physically attend the symposium.
If you you would like more information about the symposium coordinator position or about submitting a symposium proposal, please contact Richard Durtsche (firstname.lastname@example.org).